President Trump couldn’t welcome the Clemson University football team Monday with food typically served at the White House, given that caterers there were furloughed under the partial government shutdown. So he did what many other Americans do when their options are limited: He ordered out.
The president celebrated the fast-food display — complete with mounds of hamburgers, fries, pizzas and, to be fair, some boxed salads — and, of course, boasted about paying for it himself. The reception, no doubt, was an attempt to make the president more relatable, but if anything, his cornucopia of greasy indulgence should serve as a symbol of his presidency.
On the bluntest level, Trump’s default choice of “great American food” is a manifestation of a great American problem. People across the country — especially in low-income areas — too often rely on such inexpensive, high-calorie, high-sugar food to get by. We all know the result: a stark nutritional divide that saddles our most vulnerable communities with the brunt of our poor national health.
The problem is often framed as a lack of access to food — as in, low-income communities are less likely to have access to supermarkets or stores with fresh produce. But this “food desert” explanation doesn’t suffice; research shows the real issue is that junk food is just more affordable, more convenient and more ingrained in some communities than nutritious options are.
This is a reality that has long frustrated public-health advocates: It’s simply difficult to change people’s behavior. This is partly due to a lack of education on nutrition, but it’s also due to the fact that consumers simply find the short-term cost reductions of junk food more attractive than addressing long-term health costs.
But food isn’t the only aspect of life where Americans overvalue instant gratification and ignore the massive challenges looming on the horizon. The Trump administration embodies that mind-set.
Take climate change. Trump’s opponents advocate taking on some of the long-term costs associated with remedying global warming now, either by implementing some type of carbon tax or using taxpayer money to subsidize cleaner energy. Trump’s strategy is not merely to ignore the problem but to deny that it’s even happening. The short-term economic benefits of carbon-based energy are just too tantalizing for the president’s conservative base to give up, so he parades around talking about a “war on coal” and promising that coal jobs will reappear — as if the president has power to control the market forces that have cut into the coal industry.
Whereas others want to lay out a systematic overhaul of immigration policy — or, at the very least, make some kind of deal on immigration just to keep the government running — Trump’s strategy is to exacerbate the problem but in ways that make his base feel good. He has ginned up a phony crisis at the border and offered a solution as flimsy as the fast-food containers he served on White House platters: a border wall that has little to do with effective immigration enforcement. Never mind the long-term immigration crises we face, such as the millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally, or dealing with the humanitarian and economic crises in Central America that spur migrants to come north in the first place.
And while others are alarmed about the growing debt and interest rate payments facing our country, Trump’s strategy has been to hand out treats in the form of tax cuts to business interests. Despite his lip service to our growing fiscal woes on the campaign trail, he has set up the 2019 budget to reach a deficit greater than $1 trillion.
This is the junk-food presidency, oriented to a political era in which far too many people are concerned about immediate satisfaction. Whoever challenges Trump in 2020 will have a tough time persuading people to get serious about discomforting issues and advocating solutions that will require taxpayers to take on the costs of proper government. But if we focus a little more on the long term, perhaps we’ll be able to make our country a little healthier.